The Tears of Things

I’ve been talking recently with an Episcopal priest about the ongoing agonies of the Anglican Communion. Although he and I find ourselves in different places on the questions of the hour, he and I were also a bit surprised to see each other struggling to articulate a very similar posture towards the questions. We have both ended up describing, in our different ways, our reluctance to try to relieve the tension and unsettledness and anguish we feel.

Shouldn’t those who are pressing for the “full inclusion” of “practicing” gay and lesbian Christians in the church (to use the jargon) give more indication that they feel the weight of what they’re asking? That’s what my priest friend asks. Shouldn’t there be a little more fear and trembling and reverence for the historic teaching of the church? Of course they may end up disagreeing with Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, and Barth about the moral significance of our being created male and female, but shouldn’t they be a little less sanguine about it and a little more deferential, to the point of saying, “We believe the tradition made a grave mistake in its disallowance of gay partnerships, but at the same time we acknowledge our deep indebtedness to that tradition for giving us the theological and ethical vision to even make our argument for inclusion”?

(There are many who do say things like this—Eugene Rogers comes to mind immediately—and I don’t want to minimize their efforts.)

On the other hand, I find myself equally frustrated at times with my fellow “conservatives.” I recently sat down with a minister for whom I have the utmost respect. He has more than a little sympathy for people in my shoes (gay and celibate), but as we talked, he said something to the effect of, “This is an incredibly frustrating conversation to keep having in the church. Twenty years ago, the liberals were saying, ‘St. Paul was talking about the evils of pederasty in Romans 1, not the kind of loving, committed relationships we’re advocating for.’ Now they’ve changed their tune and want to say simply, ‘Paul was wrong. We know better.’” The self-assuredness of this minister’s assessment of the “revisionist” case bothered me, not least because I’m acquainted with quite a few “liberal” arguments that are a good deal more subtle and more respectful of the necessity of Scriptural exegesis than these quips would’ve led you to think.

In sum, I guess I just want to plead for a little more recognition of the difficulty and complexity of both “sides” of this debate among Christians. If I were advocating for unqualified blessing of same-sex unions in the church, I would hope that I’d have the humility and charity and intellectual honesty to grapple with Scripture and the church’s tradition in a way that didn’t dismiss it as simply “homophobic” or hopelessly benighted. And since I am advocating for adherence to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, I hope that I do so in a way that admits, “This is a hard teaching. I’m far from grasping its rationale fully myself. I still have a lot of questions. And I recognize that the church does a bad job, in many cases, of making it seem attractive and practicable and life-enhancing for gay Christians themselves. Until there are stronger practices of friendship and community and hospitality in the church, I feel an enormous amount of anguish and frustration when I tell young gay Christians that, yes, I do think, on the authority of Scripture, that God is asking you to live without gay sex. I cringe when I tell you that because, in our current climate, that often means living without deep intimacy.”

A couple of years ago when I was finishing up graduate school in England, I met with an Anglican priest and chaplain of one of the colleges in Durham. She’d been giving some lectures to Anglican seminarians on sexual ethics, and she recommended they read my book Washed and Waiting, which I was grateful for. And she told me that she prefaced their discussion by saying, “One of my main goals in talking with you about the situation gay Christians find themselves in is to convince you that it’s complicated.”

I hope that wasn’t where she ended the discussion (because that’s a bad place to end it). But I do agree that’s a crucial place to start. And maybe that recognition should be accompanied by what Virgil called lachrimae rerum—tears for how the world goes. There aren’t enough of those tears, on either side of this debate.

14 thoughts on “The Tears of Things

  1. Pingback: The Tears of Things » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. I do get frustrated when (in a wide variety of topics and situations) the opening statement is that the solution to the problem that a large group of people have is simple. If it were really simple, then we would not be having the discussion. That seems pretty simple to me.

  3. Thanks, Wes, for this post; for you have clearly articulated my ‘musings’ as I consider the complexity of this issue within not only the Anglican Communion, but society as well – easily summarized (while simultaneously trying not to neglect the complexity) as to why should one be ‘condemned’ for what they are ‘by nature’ (and not by ‘rational choice’). I have just started to read Andrew Sullivan’s “Virtually Normal” (1995) in which the conservative Christian position could be described as ‘Prohibitionist’. NB – I have just started to read the book, and have only read, so far, chapter one and a few pages of chapter two; so by no means can I readily claim a good working understanding of what Sullivan is communicating.

    On a related subject; I would like to see further discussion on what “stronger practices of friendship and community and hospitality in the church” would look like, and how indeed it is being practiced within concrete situations; i.e. a bit more on the praxis of Spiritual Friendship.

    I should also add that I would welcome a fuller discussion as to why the Biblical writers did not see ‘same sex relationships’ as expressive of the creative order in Genesis.

  4. I like this post, as I’ve had similar frustrations with both sides. Both seem to be so “presentist” in their understanding of their position, or else they hint at an acknowledgment of historical contingency (always in a way that helps their side) but then don’t really seem to get the depth of the importance of it.

    To the “liberals” who take the “benighted bigotry” line, I always feel like pointing out that the category of “the homosexual” as a type of person didn’t even exist until very recently in history, and that the idea of sexual orientation is a very recent construct. Obviously, homosexual behavior (and thus individual desires/attractions in some sense) existed in the past, but its hard to say how much of desire is truly “instinctual” for humans, and how much really is about social construction, and thus even whether there were “homosexuals” in any recognizably modern sense. But even if there was always a significant minority of people who would respond exclusively or predominantly to same-sex visual stimuli (say, on an arousal test) it’s unclear how conscious anyone was of this as a coherent pattern that could be identified or how they were constructing those experiences to themselves in their own head. The idea that there have always been self-aware gay people throughout history, forced into the closet for so long only by social pressure, dreaming of being able to marry a same-sex beloved…well, it seems rather historically naive, given that the very concepts involved were previously unthinkable (and thus, presumably, not valued in the same way), given that even “romantic love” itself and the idea of marital intimacy as a sine qua non for happiness, and the idea of “sexual fulfillment” as a “need” related to emotional intimacy…were not as clear cut in past societies even for heterosexual interaction.

    To the liberals who would admit this and say “So Paul was only talking about pederasty, he couldn’t even conceive of the modern construct of loving same-sex coupling and sexual intimacy,” I’d have to ask why we should assume the modern construct is good or neutral. Are we to always assume that when it comes to the moral order (as an emanation from the socio-economic and political order) that “we know better now” or that the emergence of newer constructs is always a GOOD thing?

    On the other hand, I also feel the need to remind conservatives that we are, in fact, living in a Brave New modern world, and that enjoining the solutions of the past on the present is simply not feasible. It’s almost as if conservatives think that through enough will-power and repression we can put the cat back in the bag and return to a world where the concept of gay people simply will disappear or recede out of consciousness again. However historically contingent its emergence as a category, and however problematic we might even identify that emergency or the social order which precipitated it…the fact is that gay people’s consciousness has been raised as a group, and that in the current social/cultural situation that identification, that manner in which some of us are embedded into the economy of desire…puts us in quite a dilemma when it comes to the question of personal fulfillment and happiness that can’t just be willed away. Sure, the idea of a partnership based on (at least partly) sexual/gendered emotional dynamics (whether acted on genitally or not) has not always been something constructed as necessary for human happiness (or, at least, was necessary in very different ways for very different reasons). But in the current sociological order, it is. A few people can manage to live outside the box, and we might critique the whole sociological order itself that has resulted in this arrangement and these modes of subjectivity. But I’d ask the conservatives to be a lot more compassionate about the fact that the social order doesn’t change by wishful thinking, and that we have to deal with the fact that most of us are living in the real world AS it currently exists, and to have compassion on the fact of the pressure that puts people under. Living “as if” we were in a well-ordered society or spiritual economy may be necessary for individual salvation, in spite of the surrounding culture, but it’s simply A LOT harder to be a good man in a bad polis. And I think conservative Christians need to at least CONSIDER the idea (even if they have reasons for ultimately concluding otherwise) that some moral ideas could in fact have been good relative to the peace and stability of a past socio-political order, but would be downright antisocial today given the differences in the political order (I think, for example, of how we approach pluralism, etc).

    Of course, admitting all this about historical contingency or making arguments based on it can also put us (as honest as it may be) in an awkward position relative to certain other questions that likewise are historically contingent. Take democracy, or slavery even. No one wants to be heard defending “slavery” even theoretically, because it is simply anathema in today’s socio-economic order and has had a narrative of terrible abuse spun around it (and probably rightly so). But at the same time is it really realistic to read modern “progress” on the question of class equality onto past situations where the whole situation socially probably demanded certain arrangements exist regarding labor and class divisions and who got to make what decisions about social mobility, etc? Are we really willing to say that such socio-economic orders were, in their own time, “intrinsically” wrong? I think that probably opens our OWN order, in the future, to similar critiques. Someday when wage-labor is abolished, will they scoff at us as barbarians? But what if the abolition is dependent on a certain level of resource-abundance and systems for fair distribution that we simply don’t have yet and couldn’t hope to implement until further technology and corresponding political-economic-social restructuring takes place? Is our own subjectivity in today’s situation somehow spiritually “less than” just because certain practical degrees-of-freedom have not yet been realized? But I see an analogy to the sexuality question here…

  5. I agree! Phrases like “the bible clearly says” or “God obviously thinks” or “Jesus would never” are such conversation killers. I think people sometimes use them as silencing techniques because they are afraid to hear a well-reasoned or thoughtful argument from someone on the other side. I think its very scary to realize that honest, thoughtful and heartfelt Christians can come to very different conclusions.

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  7. One theological nitpick first: positing that a biblical author could be wrong about something is not necessarily disrespectful. We ought always do so with great care and perhaps even a little “fear and trembling” but the Bible is not held by Roman, Orthodox or Anglican tradition to be an infallible collection of documents. It is a vital source of revelation but is considered to be fallible on several points.

    Now onto the bulk of your post. I will agree that it may be so that for dialogue’s sake some of us liberals ought to emphasize our allegiance to the traditions of the Church and the Scriptures, but I just as much would love to see a little more Conservative regard for the consequences of their theology on the lives of LGB people (not to mention transgendered people who have been so often treated appallingly). If we liberals ought to emphasize the “fear and trembling” we feel when we question the historic teachings of the Church (and I assure you many of us feel it quite deeply), then I would love to see more conservatives emphasizing the “fear and trembling” they feel when they inform gay people that they possess at the very core of their being and identity a drive towards sinful ends. The psychological ramifications are massive when we tell lesbian and gay teenagers still forming their psyches that their very natural drive towards romantic, marital love is aimed towards a sinful and wicked end. When we tell those young people that they face a life of living and dying without having felt the irreplaceable love of a spouse, we say something deeply, truly devastating. I know, because I have certainly felt it. And no, saying that they “ought to make some friends” or “God will make them whole” isn’t true. St. Paul was quite right IMO when he said that celibacy was a charismatic gift, and I assure you God hasn’t chosen to bestow it upon all gay people.

    The humility that a Conservative should show when telling these young Christians this should at least match the humility that we Liberals ought to show when we question the supposedly unified opinion of Church Tradition and the Scripture on this issue.

    Both sides of the table should approach this difficult, painful subject with the utmost humility and care.

  8. Pingback: Tidbits 9/19/13 | Tipsy Teetotaler

  9. I think the problem is that the church doesn’t “feel the weight” of what its doctrine has wrought in the lives of real human beings.

    Gay people have been murdered, beaten, shot, jailed, electro-shocked, hormone-therapied, threatened, analyzed, blackmailed, and widely hated and scorned; we’ve fallen into depression, shame, despair, anguish, alcoholism, madness, addiction, and suicide. You may be too young to remember the bad old days – but I watched perfectly decent human beings drink themselves to death because of their instilled self-hatred. Others killed themselves more quickly. Parents have ejected gay children from their own homes; gay kids have ended up homeless on the streets – or killed themselves in despair. We were taught to hate and despise ourselves – and, for God’s sake, that our very existence was a threat to everybody around us (see Sodom and Gomorrah for the relevant text). For a long time, I suspected that every unexplained suicide was gay-related.

    These things are still going on in places in the world.

    Meanwhile, the church shuns us and ejects us from its midst – so we can’t even have the solace and benefit of a spiritual life. I only found a spiritual life and rescue via A.A. – which early in its history, BTW, decided that gay people could not be excluded from its saving program; it knew that doing so was equivalent to a death sentence. I joined the Episcopal Church because A.A. encourages a return to organized faith practices – and found the fighting over this issue has made my spiritual life far worse. I’d never in my life been attacked in such a vicious way as I found common among Anglicans.

    The Catholic Church has generally been kinder and saner on this issue than any of the Protestant bodies, demanding that gay people be treated with kindness. (Of course, its prelates often go off the rails on this, using language that imputes “evil” to us.) But Anglicans have no doctrine, either, that logically requires celibacy, as the RCC does. It’s a purely arbitrary doctrine, based only in texts which can certainly be understood in other ways, if one wanted to respond with kindness to the catastrophe visited upon human beings; I don’t think anybody should be surprised that gay people are arguing for this to stop, now.

    When the church realized that its past teaching had created a poisonous anti-Semitism that eventually resulted in the Holocaust, it didn’t hesitate to address the issue. The avoidance on the part of the church on this issue makes it clear it hasn’t absorbed any of this quite yet.

    • One problem with “the doctrine has led to real people getting hurt!” narrative isn’t that it’s not true; to some degree it is.

      But I really think we need to consider the fact that the idea of a “gay person” is relatively new. It’s not that there was this “doctrine” out there oppressing a “class of people” from the beginning. It’s that there was this doctrine that for a long time would have found that whole idea incomprehensible, and then suddenly this category of person was socially constructed and had its consciousness raised.

      A more cynical person might be inclined to say that the gay construct was created “deliberately” in order to have a new class of people to liberate. In other words, that it was a category that was constructed in a “reactionary fashion” relative to religious ideology to begin with, rather than an “independently” existing category that religious dogma (intentionally or unintentionally) went after to oppress.

      • All I’ll say is that I had no trouble at all, in 1970, identifying with Radclyffe Hall’s novel about “inverts,” “The Well of Loneliness,” written in 1928. Nor do I think I’m any different than women who lived together in “Boston marriages” during earlier eras. I’m certain that Gertrude Stein and Noel Coward and Alan Turing were gay; is there any good reason to doubt this?

        I honestly don’t buy the “gay people have never existed before” argument anyway. It’s hard to know in some cases because of widespread repression, but it seems clear to me from reading about the subject that many if not most cultures have recognized a classification of people we’d understand as “gay” today. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me to doubt this…..

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